King Lear

The Madness of King Lear

It is odd to think that true madness can ever be totally understood. Shakespeare's masterful depiction of the route to insanity, though, is one of the stronger elements of King Lear. The early to middle stages of Lear's deterioration (occurring in Acts I through III) form a highly rational pattern of irrationality: Lear's condition degenerates only when he is injured or when some piece of the bedrock upon which his old, stable world rested is jarred loose. His crazy behavior makes a lot of sense. Despite his age and frailty, Lear is no weak character; it is difficult to imagine how another character could have better resisted such mental and emotional weights as the king suffers under. Lear's worsening madness is understandable only when interpreted with a proper appreciation of the intense forces acting on him and of the gradual disappearance of everything he finds recognizable about his former world.

As Lear sets out from his palace toward his daughters' homes, he is still sane, though he begins to regret disowning Cordeliathe first sign of mental stress and the first step toward his eventual madness. Lear's Fool needles him about the rash decision, and the king blurts out, "O! let me be not mad,...

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